Cultural appropriation in fashion is an interesting topic. It can also be murky to navigate. As someone with a pronounced interest in and appreciation for culture, particularly the unique artistic contributions of cultures, the presence of strong cultural fingerprints in fashion catches my attention.
MI CASA ES SU CASA
On one hand, my idealist, egalitarian nature sees all cultures on an equal plane in terms of the value of their unique aesthetic, artistic, and artisanal points of view. All the world’s cultures, I feel, have an equal right to participate in a beautiful, free-flowing, global exchange of art and ideas. Behaving as though one culture or another is particularly fragile or more in need of shielding strikes me as patronizing and a little condescending.
C’EST LA VIE
On the other hand, I realize that reality can be a little bit ugly and imbalanced. I realize that the history of cultural exchange has been fraught with ignorance, exploitation, and oppression. I realize that we, in this hopefully more enlightened age, have a responsibility to shed the ignorance and mistreatment of the past and shape a global community founded on respect. Perhaps some burden may even be ours to right some of the wrongs of those who came before us?
VENI, VIDI, VICI
I am fully aware that, in actuality, there is a difference between wearing a Union Jack t-shirt and an African dashiki or something with a Native American “tribal” print. On the surface, each lends its own cachet of coolness to the wearer and has, at one point or another, been on trend in the world of fashion. The reaction to Britpop appropriated apparel and a hipster sheathed in Navajo-weave-pattern-inspired jeggings from some national retailer, you might find, is quite different. Is this fair? Perhaps not, though neither was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, for that matter (g’ahead, look it up).
Cultural appropriation is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Cultural exchange and appropriation has been happening as long as there has been exposure and trade between peoples. However, there are some primary concerns of which we must be cognizant so as to not dip into “misappropriation” territory. Let’s briefly explore some of these concerns.
LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ
As I see it, the first thing we have to look at is the question of power balance. The problem seems to arise when one of the parties has an unequal voice in the transaction. There is, of course, clear evidence of such transactions happening between the empires of the past and the places they plundered throughout the world’s history. In like pattern, juggernaut corporations and fashion houses of our day, although perhaps absent of any malintent, sometimes take what they please from whomever without so much as a please or thank you.
The other notable problem we run into, in doing this, is the casual disregard for significance or sacredness of articles and symbols being appropriated. Individuals have gone under fire more than once in recent news for unceremoniously donning ceremonial garb such as feathered headdresses and other such culturally significant costuming. While, I’m sure, in many cases, no disrespect was meant, no particular respect or consideration was paid either.
But let’s real talk for a second here. It is, frankly, quite ludicrous to expect all individuals to stay within the narrow lanes of their own respective cultural heritage, particularly as those lanes grow more and more ambiguous and blurred in an increasingly globalized world. That’s highly unrealistic and largely counterproductive, not to mention entirely unpoliceable.
It seems to me that, as a society, we’ve somehow grown hypersensitive in primarily problematic, self-centered ways. Perhaps the discussion of today’s trolling culture that has somehow crept in with the information age where people feel entitled to inflict their own opinions however they want on whomever they want is a discussion for another time and place, but, if you ask me, we could all benefit from turning our conscientiousness outward a little bit more than we now do. We should be less sensitive about who in the world is offending our personal ideologies and slower to outrage. We can be more considerate of the values and points of view of our fellow human beings. Throwing shade and fashion shaming e’er’body six ways to Sunday every time they miscalculate an outfit cannot be the solution.
JE NE SAIS QUOI
So, what is the answer? Is it abstinence? Should we stick to gray t-shirts and turn a blind eye to the geotribal trend (which doesn’t appear to be going away soon) or any other culturally rich aesthetic that catches our attention? Is the answer just a little bit of thoughtfulness, maybe? But that’s still dicey, with no clear-cut barometer for appropriateness. Or is it just that we all need to take a global fashion chill pill?
COUP DE GRÂCE
My personal philosophy, I suppose, in the end, is this: Above all, like what you like. If something appeals to you, give yourself permission to like it. Then, take moment to examine the impact this might reasonably have on others. If the impact is foreseeably not a negative one, then go for it – embrace it. If, at any point, you discover your assessment was wrong, apologize if necessary, course correct, and chalk it up to another lesson learned. This is the only real compass I can see to effectively navigate both fashion and life. You’re welcome. #truthnuggets
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